As you sat down at your desk on Friday and talked idley with workmates, more than 3,000 miles away a much meatier conversation was going on.
In a studio at the BBC’s New Broadcasting House in London, 100 women, most of whom had never met each other before, thrashed out some of the biggest issues facing womankind — live on air.
The global media powerhouse’s 100 Women series has this month been focusing on stories and issues of importance to women, by zeroing in on 100 women from at least 70 different nations, according to editor Fiona Crack.
“The idea from the inception was that we would create a world of women…the idea was that for every women that we had there, they would be representing 10 million…and the idea is the voices are echoed back.”
The ramped up focus on women – and related issues – is for a number of reasons, but largely in response to audience feedback, with the catalyst the gang rape of the Delhi student and her subsequent death last December, Crack says.
“It made me and lots of people in the newsroom think about how we cover sexual violence. It’s something we do as a news story but it’s…hard to stand back sometimes and see how we cover something.”
After the International Day of the Women in March this year, a flood of feedback from female listeners asked the BBC to provide more content from and about women.
“They want to see us reflecting the world back and looking more like them, more women on air, more stories about women, of interest to women…they’ve said to us that we haven’t been doing very well.”
Crack says while the organisation has been covering these issues, the chaos of the daily news churn meant that stories which demanded a more in-depth look did not always get it.
“Lots of media organisations have those issues…this is a chance for us to put that right…and say we’re going to do everything we can to increase the number of voices on air…it’s a pledge from us as well.”
Through social media and other means, listeners – of both genders – from around the world have been taking part in the conversation.
The month-long programming culminated in the 100 women conference, held on Friday, where issues up for debate by the 100 women included motherhood, the role of faith in feminism, and sexual violence.
Crack says the women chosen, who included Chelsea Clinton and Cherie Blair but also a porn film director, stay-at-home mums and a host of women from the Middle East, were intended to be a representation of women at large. While different countries had their own nuanced problems, issues of concern to women around the globe was fairly uniform: sexual violence, women’s education, women’s health and the glass ceiling. “We’ve got a spread of ages and regions and conservative versus liberal women…the idea was to be a bit more sophisticated than just set a boxing ring and have two women who say pro or anti-abortion, or whatever.”
While Crack concedes most of the women chosen are inspirational in their own way “there are normal women like you and me – it’s such a complex way of trying to build up this world of women”.
The women were chosen through a number of different ways, including by asking audiences who the 10 women they would most like to hear from were (Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama were the resounding choices – neither of whom were available), as well as through looking at women involved in community issues and by talking to their 26 different language services, in order to get an international spread.
“We were looking for new voices,” Crack says. One of those new voices is young Kenyan 20-something Joyce Aoka Aruga. The tenacious woman dropped out of schooling to become a housemaid after her father died to help support her other siblings. While she is now enrolled in teacher training, she had designs to become a politician – something the BBC was helping to bring about by teaming her up in a mentorship with British politician Clare Short. Joyce’s visit to Britain was her first outside of Kenya.
Another placed in a mentorship relationship – one of 10 arranged by the BBC who had asked the mentors to commit to a year of help – is Indian comedian Aditi Mittal, who has been matched with Pakistani-Brit comedian Shazia Mirza.
Closer to home, Yemen Times editor Nadia Al Sakkaf and Saudia Arabian academic and gender expert Madawi Al Rasheed have also been taking part. Crack says she hopes the BBC series propels some of the lesser-known women, such as Joyce, into more public life, and that they become respected commentators – or achieve their chosen goals.
“They’ve already shown such tenacity and endeavour to improve their lives…they’re already on their way to doing that.”
Another hope is that other news organisations will continue to address the long-held gender imbalances.
“I think historically we haven’t been as well represented and I think that’s changing…grass roots journalists have both men and women but there are more men at the top levels than there are women and I think we all know the reasons for that.
“I think it’s the responsibility of everyone at the top echelons – whether you’re a man or a woman.”